Twenty-three-year-old Ukrainian engineer Daria is almost “past her prime.” Unmarried and childless, Daria lives in Odessa with her beloved grandmother, Boba, and is underemployed as a secretary for the enigmatic but lewd businessman David Harmon, her Jewish boss at the shipping company where she’s found work — but for a price.
Everything in Odessa is a game, and its residents act as unwitting pawns. The local mafia controls everything from electricity to groceries to imports, and if you want something accomplished? Well, you’d better have your checkbook handy. In the mid-1990s, the economy is in tatters — and fresh from splintering with the Soviet Union, life in Ukraine feels very unstable. Even with the city’s beauty and the dark humor of its people, Daria feels deeply unsettled.
And Mr. Harmon is relentless. From the moment she accepts her position as his secretary, Daria is expected to . . . well, get into compromising positions. Horrified but unable to turn down the $300-a-month salary, she hopes to stave off his advances as long as possible but keep her job. When she realizes her position might be on the chopping block, she looks to “moonlight” elsewhere — and becomes a translator at a company that provides email-order brides to American men.
Daria prides herself on her English, which is impeccable — and her biggest asset. But can it be her ticket out?
Janet Skeslien Charles’ Moonlight In Odessa is addictive, unexpected and a deeply acquired taste — I’ll say that right off the bat. It’s bawdy. A little over-the-top. Funny but also tragic; fascinating, but almost morbidly so. Deeply entrenched in romance, love, sex — and everything in between. It’s about making choices and where those choices lead you.
I started this book on a sunny afternoon, intimidated by its girth, but it wasn’t long before I was hopelessly sucked into Daria’s story and enchanted by her Boba, a strong woman who raised her granddaughter alone. Daria’s devotion to her only close relative is heartwarming, and I longed to spend time enjoying feasts in their tiny flat. Though Daria’s new job comes with terrible compromises, I understood why she took it: it was an opportunity. And in a city rife with suffering and financial troubles, that opportunity meant a better life for Boba. Boba — to whom she owed everything.
When Daria begins her second job with the mail-order — or email-order — bride agency, the plot spun in a wildly different direction. We’d spent more than 100 pages establishing life in Odessa, and Charles skillfully detailed Daria’s circumstances — and what would bring her to the decisions she made. Never rushed and always entertaining, we’re given a solid look into our narrator’s world without ever getting weighed down with detail. These were people I felt I really knew.
But I never knew where we were headed, never knew what was around the next bend — and neither, it seems, did Daria. Intelligent, beautiful and strong-willed, it was hard to imagine her making certain decisions . . . but then again, it wasn’t. Charles deftly spun web after web, ensnaring readers, and even I couldn’t help but feel Daria had made the right choices . . . until she didn’t. It was a hard story to put down.
Moonlight In Odessa places a huge emphasis on the cultural differences between American and Ukrainian culture, and the author herself — an American — spent two years studying in the title city. Daria’s voice feels very authentic — so much so that I was shocked to learn Charles is not from Odessa. Reading about Daria’s culture shock further endeared her to me, and I loved her perceptions of American idioms and behaviors. It’s always interesting to view your own world through another’s lens.
But though I really enjoyed it, I concede that this wouldn’t be a book for everyone. The novel closely looks at sex, love and the differences therein, and some of the situations made me a little uncomfortable. Having just watched a documentary on online brides, I was fascinated by Charles’ novel — and would recommend it to contemporary fiction lovers seeking an unconventional sort of story.
4 out of 5!